“With Her Own Blood…”

“By them there sat the loving pelican, Whose young ones, poison’d by the serpent’s sting, With her own blood to life again doth bring.”
– Michael Drayton

Hundreds of years ago, on a beach that perhaps no longer exists, a pelican was seen preening itself.  Watching the unwieldy beak pierce the feathered breast, this witness – with a typically medieval combination of romance and ignorance – believed that the creature was purposefully wounding itself, to feed its young with its own blood. 

Pelican Preen

The ferocity of parenthood –  its mindless, intuitive courage, found a symbol on that forgotten, salty day.  Thereafter, in the coiling margins of sacred manuscripts the pelican would nest:  fledglings at her feet,  sprayed with the blood dripping from their mother’s breast.  Devout and sacrificial, she faced inwards, towards a page of biblical and gothic story-telling.

The pelican became known as a symbol of the Passion of Jesus, its purity and feathers drifting throughout St. Thomas Aquinas’ “Adoro te devote”, trapped in frozen carvings  above the hair-shirted choirs.  During this ancient time the world was teeming with mystery, and its creatures lived forever in green myths and legends.  Their songs echoed in empty courtyards.

It lived in bestiaries, where creatures of the earth and of the imagination would lie together in a zoological parable – an ark that floated through literature for thousands of years. 

Love Hurts

It was sewn into a knight’s pennon, flying into the jousting air; it was a sculpture on his helmet:  golden and clumsy.  The pelican mixed into the alchemy of heraldry:  taking its place with lions, leopards, unicorns and oak trees – supporting the shields of nobility.

Noble Blood

 It glittered within jewelry – in baubles heavy with allegory, pearls and rubies. 

Hanging Nest

Elizabeth I wore such a metaphor: a  brooch all but lost in a maze of velvet, diamonds and seed pearls.  Thin, pale, pressed inside a corset of wood, she wore the emblem of love and voluntary pain.

Feeding Frenzy

Nature, in a fit of whimsy, had given the pelican a foolish profile – elongated and unbalanced.  But, as if to make up for her mischief, she gave pelicans the gift of dramatic flight.  Flying across the blue ceiling, they carve black chevrons in the sky…

Shadow Flight

or plunge directly into the water, as if Neptune himself had thrown a noose around their heads and was drawing them into the fishing depths.  They will fly a hand’s span above the waves, riding the maritime currents that held them in a pelagic grasp.

The earliest remains of the pelican are 30,000,000 old.  Ribs and pinions lay flat beneath slabs of shale and amber, the neck curled and broken – the body twisted into a prehistoric coil.  Motionless within the sediment and crumbs of centuries, it held within its bones an ancient story which was told inside books of veiled myth, which flew above fermenting oceans, and which perched on the spavined chest of a Virgin Queen.


9 responses to ““With Her Own Blood…”

  1. Beautifully told! A well done tribute to a truth/myth that has become lost in man’s rush to find themselves. Thank you for brilliantly bringing it alive once more.

  2. You have taught me something today, Aubrey. Every bird is fascinating to me, and I had no idea of the mythical/noble history of the pelican in art, fashion and heraldry. Thank you!

  3. Wonderful! I have to say watching pelicans is my favorite beach activity (and there are a good number of them here in SD). I especially love when they dive into the ocean for prey.

    And was there ever a creature more ungainly on the ground and more gorgeous in flight?

  4. I love all birds, and pelicans are especially fun. I had the privilege of having one dive right beside me when I was snorkeling and I watched underwater as he scooped up a fish!
    This history is news to me, too! And I loved every second! Thanks! 🙂

  5. Oh Aubrey! Your post reminds me of an old professor whose passion was Shakespeare. He also loved bird-watching, so he would point out the frequent references to birds in the Bard’s plays. One of them in Hamlet was about the kind, life-giving pelican—Laertes uses the metaphor to show he would give his own blood for his sister if it would heal her madness.

    The professor died a number of years ago, but I still think about him when I see references like yours. Thank you for bringing him back for me.

  6. What a lovely tribute. I could only dream of ever seeing a pelican until we visited South Carolina – I looked up and they were flying past our balcony. Watching them, it’s like getting pulled back in time.

  7. Faya – Thank you! Pelicans are generally quiet birds – perhaps they’re listening for the recognition they know they deserve to once again swing their way.

    Laurie – There are so many images in heraldry that remain a mystery. The stories behind them, the mottos and myths, are fascinating. It’s glorious to think that there is a grain of truth in each one. Where there’s smoke, there’s fire, remember.

    Steve – We’re lucky, actually. The brown pelicans that live on the west coast are the only ones that stage those spectacular dives. When Boyfriend and I watch the ocean and see distant splashes beyond the waves, we know that there are pelicans hunting.

    Lauri – Swimming with a pelican! You lucky snorkling girl, you! I’m glad I was able to tell you a little about his odd, affectionate history.

    Hangaku – You honor me! I’m so glad this bit of writing has brought your dear professor back to mind. Birds and Shakespeare – two things that are not bound to the earth.

    Emmy – Their dignity and grace does pull us back to a quiet time, a peaceful
    time, when ancient books were new; when thought was first being formed.

  8. Aubrey – how do you know this/these wonderful details? I am enchanted by how you lace art and history together and by the way you shine light on so many things of interest and meaning and then layer them with poetic phrasings.

  9. Pingback: The Pelican in Her Piety | Avangelista's Blog

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